Rail adventure, in the good old-fashioned sense of the word, might be a thing of the past but you have only to contact one of the 5 following groups of steam railway fanatics to enjoy a ride. Chug along behind a class 15F steam locomotive that, back in the day, transported the likes of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth when they visited the country in 1947.
It is thanks to a handful of groups across the country that steam train rides are available at all today.
Here are the Top 5 Steam Train Rides in South Africa…
1. MAGALIESBURG EXPRESS
What do you get when you throw a bunch of voluntary rail enthusiasts together? Not one but five historic steam locomotives under the banner of Reef Steamers, who provide steam train rides from Johannesburg Park Station to Magaliesburg (the town), in the Magaliesberg.
Railway romance begins with watching the preparations of the engine – the coal trimming, firing, ash-pan cleaning and lubrication, and wheel tapper at work. Add to this billowing clouds of steam, the authentically shrill whistle blows and the chug-chug of the train as it inches its way out of the station, and you can understand that this ride might be popular. Book ahead. Reef Steamers also run a steam train to Irene.
Where: platform 14, Park Station, Johannesburg
When: public holidays and special occasions
Contact: Reef Steamers, 011 888 1154
Tip: pack a picnic to share in Magaliesburg
The railway line on which a fleet of old locomotive beauties chug, ranging in age from 1908 through to 1953 (and including a Class 3BR, Class 12R, Class 19D, Garratt GF, Garratt GMAM and a 1892 vintage Dübs Class-A), dates back to the 1880s, with the building of the first railway line connecting Durban and Pietermaritzburg.
Further delights include a 53 metre tunnel at Drummond, built in 1878, and beautiful, historical railway stations. The route also ascends some of the steepest railway gradients in the country. The official route is between Kloof and Inchanga on the last Sunday of every month, but trains sometimes travel all the way to Durban or Pietermaritzburg.
Where: Kloof station
When: last Sunday of every month
Contact: 031 303 3003
Tip: fill in an online booking form on their website
3. DIAMOND EXPRESS
This full-day steam train outing that runs between Hermanstad, Pretoria Accommodation and Cullinan is organised by a non-profit heritage club who keep these vintage steam trains in mint condition.
It will take roughly two hours to reach Cullinan where further options include mine tours and visits to craft shops and museums, but it is the train trip on fully restored steam trains (think: wooden panels, green vinyl benches) that is the highlight of the day. Friends of the Rail also do an around Pretoria trip, known as the Tshwane or Jacaranda Explorer, and trips to Rayton and Bela Bela.
Where: Michaelson Street, Hermanstad
When: times vary, see the Friends of the Rail’s website for timetables
Contact: 012 767 8145
Tip: take along braai meat as braai fires are available in the iron station building
This is a route every Capetonian knows, but with the added angle of a steam engine, it gains a whole new perspective. The wooden steam train, originally used for overnight trips in Namibia in the 1940s and known as ‘Jenny’, chuggs through the neighbourhoods of Cape Town pulling behind her five wooden-bodied vintage coaches, usually filled to capacity with families.
Exploring Jenny’s copper gauges and pipes, chatting to the driver and climbing up to have a look for those who are interested, is all part of the tour.
Where: the old Train Lodge, behind Cape Town station
When: 10.30am, once, sometimes twice, a month
Contact: 021 558 5805
Tip: book ahead as these trips fill up fast
5. FICKSBURG STEAM TRAIN
On an estate just outside of Ficksburg, in the shadow of the Maluti Mountains, is the biggest private collection of narrow-gauge steam locomotives in the world.
Every year the Stars of Sandstone is an annual event for steam-train aficionados that attracts umpteen visitors from around the world who come to see the traction engines, old tractors, steam lorries, locomotives and two-foot narrow-gauge locomotives.
The highlight of the festival is the 26 km narrow-gauge railway, the Sandstone Railway, along which at least 23 locomotives build up a head of steam. These steam train rides are also one of the highlights of the annual Cherry Festival.
Where: Sandstone Estate, on the R26 roughly 14 km outside of Ficksburg
When: any time, but best either for the Cherry Festival or Stars of Sandstone
Contact: 051 933 2235
Tip: If you can, take advantage of the steam train, run by Reef Steamers, that transports people from Boksburg East to the Cherry Festival (their contact is the same as the Magaliesburg Express above).
PS: OUTENIQUA CHOO-TJOE
There are rumours that this last remaining continually operated passenger steam train in Africa, that once travelled the railway between Knysna, Sedgefield, Wilderness and George, may find itself back on track. The Friends of the Choo-Tjoe have constantly campaigned to reinstate the train since its closure and later discontinuation. An interested foreign investor may consider becoming involved.